Forty-five percent of food-service workers smoke

October 27, 2009

t's one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

It's one of the leading causes of death in the United States. An additional $96.7 billion is spent each year on health care related to smoking habits. It has become less acceptable in social situations, and all but 13 states have enacted statewide smoking bans. Yet, an estimated 21 percent of American adults over the age of 18 currently smoke. And if you took a walk behind some of the local foodservice establishments in your neighborhood, you might be shocked to learn that the incidence of smoking for the staff of your favorite restaurant is more than double that!

As restaurants might be touting healthier eating on their menus, it appears that they have to do much to educate their employees about their own health; and possibly the food safety implications of having hands on workers being smokers.

There surely aren't many executive boardrooms or offices today, if any, for that matter where smoking would be acceptable; so why is it in our foodservice establishments? And even though a trend is spreading through the country to ban smoking from restaurants, it's still those workers in the food-service industry that are suffering from cigarette addiction more than others. Almost 45 percent of food-service workers reported smoking in the last month, according to a report form the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The work place is an excellent place to provide support, encouragement, and resources to help people quit smoking. A survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that smoking programs are offered by one in three companies with more than 200 workers. Among smaller firms, that was one in 12. Companies that are looking at the bottom line see that the money spent on smoking cessation programs is much less than the long-term costs of health care and loss in productivity.

In one recent study, researchers found that employees were more successful at quitting long-term when they were given cash rewards. The University of Pennsylvania researchers tracked 878 General Electric Co. employees from around the country for a year and a half in 2005 and 2006. Participants, who smoked an average of one pack of cigarettes a day, were divided into two groups of roughly equal size. All received information about smoking-cessation programs.

Members of one group also got as much as $750 in cash, with the payments spread out over time to encourage longer-term abstinence. Those participants got $100 for completing a smoking-cessation program, $250 if they stopped smoking within six months after enrolling in the study, and $400 for continuing to abstain from smoking for an additional six months.

But there are many ways employers can help their employees quit smoking, and whatever program is used, it should be tailored to the people. The approach may need to be a little different for a food-service worker than someone that works at a computer all day. The workplace is different physically, mentally, the pace is different, and varying triggers exist to raise stress levels, which in turn lead to nicotine cravings.
What can employers do to help smokers quit?

  • Employers that offer a health insurance benefit should require that all insurance plans contracting with the employer (or administering a self-insured plan) cover a 
    comprehensive cessation benefit.  Smokers who have access to a comprehensive 
    benefit have much better chances of quitting.
  • Employers that do not offer health insurance can still offer smokers help quitting by 
    sponsoring a counseling program onsite, allowing employees to attend a counseling 
    program offsite, offering employees a telephone quit line, and/or offering free or 
    discounted cessation medications.
  • Employers that offer cessation coverage or programs should make sure employees 
    know about this available help.  Benefits websites, employee newsletters, posted 
    flyers, and referrals are all good ways to publicize these programs.
  • Smoke free workplaces encourage smokers to quit and help former smokers stay 
    quit.  For more information on making your workplace smoke free, go to